Boko Haram: The Emerging Jihadist Threat in West Africa
Posted: December 12, 2011
Boko Haram emerged in the early 2000s under the leadership of Mohammed Yusuf, a self-styled Nigerian scholar who came from a privileged background and reportedly received a Western education. The group originally consisted of Yusuf and his students, who sought to instill their anti-Western interpretation of Shariah law in Nigeria.
Boko Haram operated with relative freedom until the summer of 2009, when they embarked on a series of attacks against police stations and other government facilities, prompting a government crackdown.
The resulting clashes took the lives of more than more 700 people, including Yusuf, who died in police custody. The Nigerian police claimed he was killed while trying to escape. At the time Nigerian officials believed that the group had been defeated; however, it had merely been driven underground and reemerged months later, more violent than ever.
Drawn primarily from the impoverished classes of northern Nigeria, Boko Haram also has members from Chad, Somalia, Sudan, and Niger. While the group is largely self-financed, reportedly in part by demanding that members turn over their possessions to the group, unconfirmed reports indicate that it may receive financial support from other Islamic militants and traditional sponsors of terrorism. Boko Haram may also receive money from Nigeria's political opposition seeking to discredit the country's president, Goodluck Jonathan.
Although it concentrates its activity in the predominately Muslim states of northern Nigeria, principally Borno State and the city of Maiduguri, Boko Haram has also carried out attacks in the south and in the capital city of Abuja. The group is reportedly preparing operations in the South's oil-rich Niger Delta region, which would bring it into conflict with Christian militias already operating there.
The group appears to have cultivated ties with established terrorist organizations in efforts to enhance its capabilities and international stature. Boko Haram members have also reportedly fought in Afghanistan alongside Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2009, a Nigerian named Abdul-Rasheed Abubakar claimed that Yusuf had sent him and another man to Afghanistan earlier that year for explosives training.
Allegations that Boko Haram identifies with Al Qaeda are bolstered by its apparent ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist organization's affiliate in North Africa. Abubakr Shekau, Yusuf's deputy whom authorities believed had been killed in the 2009 crackdown but who emerged from hiding in 2010, has reportedly sworn allegiance to Abdelmalek Droudkel, AQIM's founder and leader.
AQIM's media branch published a statement by Shekau in October 2010, marking the first time it had published statements from another jihadist organization and signifying the growing ties between the two groups. In addition, the White House's National Strategy for Counterterrorism reported in June 2011 that AQIM has trained Boko Haram members as part of its efforts spread its influence outside its traditional region of operations—an analysis shared by Algeria's government.
Boko Haram may have also established ties with Al Shabaab, an Islamic militant group that seeks to create an Islamic state in Somalia. Mamman Nur, who was arrested in connection to the August 2011 United Nations building bombing in Abuja, reportedly has Al Qaeda connections and traveled to Somalia, where Al Shabaab is based, shortly before the attack, according to Nigerian officials. A blog dedicated to Boko Haram's fatwas and other messages posted a photo claiming to depict group members training in Somalia.
Growing relationships between Boko Haram and established terrorist groups like AQIM and Al Shabaab, as well as speculation that Boko Haram is being used to bridge the two, raise the specter of a transcontinental network of jihadist groups spanning Africa.